Fish Out of Water: Mentoring, Managing, and Self-Monitoring People Who Don’t Fit In


Kikanza Nuri-Robins & Lewis Bundy

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    Fish Out of Water Has Something for Everyone

    I wish this book had been available when I was teaching 6th grade in public schools, serving congregations, working with youth groups, teaching seminarians, and working with ecumenical and intercultural groups. This book names the structural power dynamics and differences between and among us, offering both analyses and ways to work toward mutual cultural competence. I particularly appreciate the threads connecting individual stories from one chapter to the next, the variety of examples, and the direct questions for readers’ reflection. I commend Fish Out of Water to all of us who work with individuals and groups; it is wise, challenging counsel.

    —The Rev. Dr. Susan E. Davies, Professor and Dean
    Bangor Theological Seminary

    Fish Out of Water is an excellent resource for exploring the many ways that people feel marginalized, voiceless, and powerless at school, in the workplace, and in society in general. The real value of this book lies in the courageous conversations it will certainly provoke among those fish who swim in the middle of the pond [and] work to create more inclusive environments where others can be seen, heard, acknowledged, and helped to THRIVE.

    —Stephanie Graham-Rivas, Retired
    Los Angeles County Office of Education
    Author of Culturally Proficient Inquiry and
    Culturally Proficient Leadership for Equity

    Fish Out of Water weaves interdisciplinary concepts with piercing case studies and self-assessment exercises. Readers will engage in a process of critical reflection related to the real life experience of not fitting in. This comprehensive treatment integrates grounded theory with multiple realities. It is a must-read for leaders.

    —John Robert Browne
    Author of Walking the Equity Talk: A Guide for
    Culturally Courageous Leadership in School Communities

    A Fish Out of Water is just as valuable as all other fish. This book is an invaluable resource for leading change in an organization, beginning with the most critical resource in the organization, professional capital, the people.

    —Diann Kitamura, Associate Superintendent
    Santa Rosa City Schools

    This book made me think, reflect, consider, and reconsider my position as an educator of young children. They deserve to know we care enough to share the codes they need in order to thrive in our human pond and the rest of the ponds they will encounter throughout their lives. Seeing, caring, and sharing codes will facilitate the eventual co-creation of the third mutually shared set of cultural expectations.

    —Renee Bundy, Director
    Sequoia Nursery School

    Fish Out of Water provides a creative, nonthreatening way to address one of the most difficult issues confronting schools, the workforce and daily living—learning cultural codes to survive in today’s culturally diverse society. This book offers a simple yet never simplistic opportunity to examine and reflect on one’s cultural proficiency. In an engaging and witty manner this book provides a coherent set of principles for swimming regardless of the body of water.

    —Raymond W. Jones, Professor, Neurocognitive Trainer, and Co-Founder of PranaMind

    Fish Out of Water sheds much needed light on issues of diversity, inclusion, and identity. It is refreshing to see critical societal issues through the lens of individual experience and organizational cultures. What an important contribution and accessible educational tool for all institutions interested in doing the good work of cultural competency.

    —Nehanda Imara
    Merritt College African American Studies

    Fish Out of Water is well written, informative, and thought provoking, providing powerful insight into how we navigate our personal and professional lives. For many people, code switching is a determinant of professional success or psychological survival; it is a discussion that needs to be on the table. A great read, valuable information.

    —Jason Wall, Associate Director
    Career Center, University of California Irvine

    This book was amazing—thank you for taking the time and emotional energy to put it together. It will help many people; I could just see myself and many of my LGBT sisters and brothers throughout the pages. I only wish this book had been available to my parents, clergy, and teachers when I was a child Fish Out of Water and then to me as I grew into a young adult Fish Out of Water. The warmth of the stories, the scholarly description of our social structure, and the clarity of strategies made this a standout read for me.

    —The Rev. Dr. Georgia Prescott, Chair
    Diversity Commission, Centers for Spiritual Living

    This book made me think. It is a courageous attempt at the difficult subject of who “doesn’t fit” into the spaces and places we inhabit—and why. But the most valuable part of this book is that it describes what we can do about making our schools, workplaces, and communities more inclusive, and ultimately more effective.

    —Nicki King, PhD
    Reducing Mental Health Disparities Project, University of California Davis

    Fish Out of Water is a testament to the courage of every person who has ever felt different. In this global community, cultural competency and code switching are required skills for success in any relationship and any environment. For those who want to better understand others while transforming themselves into the best they can be, Fish Out of Water is a must-read!

    —Tadia Rice
    Author and Education Consultant

    Nuri-Robins and Bundy brilliantly explain a phenomenon I am sure I share with others. Their stories illustrate the myriad ways we Fish Out of Water experience life and shed light on how we can overcome it. Longing for belonging, finding a place that fits can be a challenge, but Nuri-Robins and Bundy have found a way to help those of us not so deft at the human experience. Their insight is profound and necessary.

    —Arrowyn Ambrose, Founder and Creative Director,
    Story Tribe

    Fish Out of Water is both a practical guide for those who find themselves or someone they care about in the wrong pond and a promising road map for navigating the often confusing and painful path of those who don’t fit in. Readers will benefit from the language the authors have created so that parents, teachers, mentors, supervisors, and coaches can be helpful resources to the Fish Out of Water in their lives.

    —Sally Vasen Alter
    Leadership Consultant and Executive Coach

    Expect the unexpected in Fish Out of Water, where you will learn through compelling true stories what it means to be out of place in an academic, social, or corporate environment. If you are seeking help for yourself or for the people you teach, supervise, mentor, or care about, you will gain insight through questions for reflections and guidelines for book study. You will be able to recognize and successfully guide your fish out of water to discover their personal power.

    —Flora Morris Brown, PhD, Publishing Coach and Author of
    Color Your Life Happy: Create Your Unique Path and Claim the Joy You Deserve

    The need for this book cannot be overstated. Each of us has been a Fish Out of Water in one setting or another, and many of us have been so in many settings. This book helps not only those of us who identify with the Fish Out of Water, but also those of us who are in positions to help others who may need help to swim comfortably in their ponds. This user-friendly format readily enables readers to help Fish Out of Water to develop strategies for swimming comfortably through the pond, ensure that the Fish Out of Water have safe places to swim, or, sometimes, aid them to find a safe channel for swimming to a different, more suitable pond.

    —Shari Dorantes Hatch
    Writer and Editor

    As someone who has rarely fit well into a group or social situation, the brilliant concepts and practical code-switching skills revealed in this book have explained to me what I thought was inexplicable. Nuri-Robins and Bundy offer ways to decode human interactions along with methods for a framework to thrive instead of flounder! This book is a survival guide for any creative person.

    —Diana Folsom, Head of Collections Digitization Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK

    A worthwhile read for anyone who wants to be a better (and more empathetic) boss, colleague, parent, and friend. As I read the stories woven through the book, I reflected on my personal experiences with every Fish Out of Water I’ve ever known and came to terms with the one profound, life-changing experience I had as a misfit which almost derailed my career. Aha! moments abound.

    —Paula Van Ness, President and CEO
    Connecticut Community Foundation

    This book is of immense value because it explains what it means to live as a Fish Out of Water. The wisdom, guidance, and support will help you to navigate the rivers of your life.

    —K. Rashid Nuri, Founder and CEO
    Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture

    There’s no expiration date on learning, and Fish Out of Water is definitive proof. This book is a crucial component in navigating your way through social and work relationships.

    —Gail Mitchell, Senior Correspondent
    Billboard Magazine


    To Ray and Randy

    To the Memory of Andre Cunningham

    We Wear the Mask

    • We wear the mask that grins and lies,
    • It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
    • This debt we pay to human guile;
    • With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
    • And mouth with myriad subtleties.
    • Why should the world be over-wise,
    • In counting all our tears and sighs?
    • Nay, let them only see us, while
    • We wear the mask.
    • We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
    • To thee from tortured souls arise.
    • We sing, but oh the clay is vile
    • Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
    • But let the world dream otherwise,
    • We wear the mask!
    Paul Laurence Dunbar (Lyrics of Lowly Life, Dodd Mead & Co., 1896, p. 167)


    Thirty years ago when I first developed the Cultural Competence Continuum as an overhead illustration for a lecture in the first of many Cultural Competence classes I would teach, I had no idea what an influential and long-lasting concept it would become. I recall that my first iteration began at Cultural Destruction and ended at Competence. I proudly showed it to one of my mentors at the time, because I wanted to know what he thought of it. He looked at it for some time without saying anything, and when I probed for a reaction he said, “Well, this is disappointing.” As he looked up at me, he must have caught my crestfallen look, because he then said, “No, it’s not that. I mean, shouldn’t we be striving for more than just Competence?”

    I realized he was right, and while I had advocated for human service providers and organizations to develop basic Cultural Competence, it was not enough. Advanced Competence or Cultural Proficiency was the ultimate goal. Where the Culturally Competent provider or agency functions effectively in the context of cultural differences, the Culturally Proficient professional or agency uses the power of culture to heal, teach, help, or serve.

    I have been pleased with and admire Kikanza and Lewis’ focus on the Proficiency end of the Continuum. They and others like them are stretching what we know about cross-cultural practice, both in the sense of what it is possible for individuals to do and what organizations can do. Their insights into code switching and their intentional approach to the development of related-life skills takes the theoretical and makes it practical. Their straightforward treatment of Cultural Proficiency and the clarity of the framework provide the reader with a solid foundation for learning and applying their approach. It is exciting to see a work that applies theory to real life and includes implications and strategies for both individuals and organizations.

    The authors have built on the Cultural Competence Model in ways that I and my coauthors of the 1989 monograph can feel very satisfied about, but there is so much yet to be done. Still today, most uninformed organizations and individuals treat culture as if it is a problem to solve when, in reality, it is one of the greatest resources available to aid our work in human services. Cultural Proficiency harnesses the power of culture and applies it to the helping relationship. Knowing how culture functions in our lives and in the lives of those we seek to help gives one access to powerful tools for helping. In this new book the authors pursue one thread of this potential. They examine the marginal person, the Fish Out of Water.

    I know this awkward place between cultures very well. I am a product of two different cultures and acculturated into a third. Raised by a White, hardworking farmer father and a generous and culturally wise Seneca mother, I found that I seldom fit in. The values, communication patterns, and cultural behaviors of my mother did not fit with the expectations of the mainstream school. My orientation to farm life and being a loner along with an unbridled curiosity made me the odd duck to cousins and peers alike. My adaption was to turn inward and to feel my difference as a deficit, with a resulting negative self-esteem, introverted behavior, and low school performance.

    It was not until I found social work that my two cultures began to meld into what I could understand as complementary assets. This third culture, the professional culture of social work, would be the space that I could become myself. As an American Indian social worker, it was my discovery that my behavior and values were normal Indigenous ways of being in the world, passed on to me by my mother, that allowed me to begin to appreciate my culture and build a positive identity and a meaningful career. This realization was both freeing and fraught with challenges.

    As a person of two cultures it was sometimes hard to be accepted easily in either one. Fortunately, I had kind and loving mentors who helped me. After graduate school I went back to my reservation to work. It was to be the best and the hardest time in my life. Racism was prevalent in the border town where I worked. My White education was not well accepted by my own people. My biracial heritage set me apart as a target for both sides.

    One day as I sat with an elder who knew the situation, I lamented how difficult it was to not fit in. He asked me, “Do you know what makes a bridge strong?” I responded with something like steel or concrete. He said, “No, a bridge is only strong if it has a strong foundation on both sides. Your White man’s education is your strong foundation on that side. Your mother’s values and teachings are your foundation in our culture. You are a bridge. Your strength is to serve as a bridge between our people and the White world.”

    These words would forever change how I would feel about myself. They moved me from being a Fish Out of Water to becoming a valuable human being. This elder was a Culturally Proficient helper. He knew how to heal with words, stories, ceremonies, and songs. He was coach, teacher, advisor, and guide, but most of all, a Culturally Proficient, natural therapist. His knowledge of human nature was deep and wise and I learned more about myself from his quiet teaching and his gentle teasing than from any other mentor.

    With the knowledge that this book brings, you too may be able to recognize and help the Fish Out of Water find their place. Given the world we live in, their gifts, talents, and insights are desperately needed. If anyone is to become Culturally Proficient in helping the next generations of our nation it will be the Fish Out of Water.

    Terry Cross, Senior AdvisorNational Indian Child Welfare AssociationPortland, Oregon


    Many people helped in the writing of this book.

    Thanks to our many friends and colleagues who participated in interviews and focus groups. It is from them that we learned of the innumerable ways people code switch and ultimately share codes with those in their environment. They told us heart wrenching stories and stories of triumph. Thank you all for your contributions.

    Thank you to the many friends and colleagues who gave us permission to use their stories in this book. The stories are true; the quotations reflect what people actually said, and the names have no relationship to the person quoted.

    Many of our colleagues read iterations of the manuscript and provided praise, criticism, and redirection, all of which helped us to finish this project. Thank you.

    Our editor, Dan Alpert, shepherded us through the process of writing the proposal and finding our voices as long-time friends and colleagues but new coauthors. We appreciate his faith in this work and constant encouragement through the process. Thanks, Dan.

    And finally, a big thanks to Lewis for showing up, saying yes, and pushing me to swim into the deep areas of the pond.

    Kikanza Nuri-Robins Los Angeles, CA

    I am grateful to the many people who provided motivation, encouragement, and insight for the completion of this work.

    To my base group of Sherri, Amber, Savannah, Sierra, and Patrick, Ashley, Ayan and Onyx, because they have been the inspiration and the victims of my stories all of their lives.

    To the family that shaped and shared my life, Dot’s Lot; Mary, Lorece, Maurice, Diane (mom would be proud of all of us), Myla, Dee Dee, Dwayne, Billy, Lawrence, Derrick, Diedra, Tanisha, Adrian, and their children; and to Rabiah and Sonya . . . Bob and Dimple Santos . . . all of whom have had to bear the burden of my yarns at one time or another.

    To my precious friends, whose support and love I will always treasure. Among them are Raymond and Aaliyah Jones; Nehanda and Nia Imara; Ardise Rawlins; Konstance and Gail Mitchell; Carnell, Sharon, Brian and Celisse Pinkney; Aunt Claudia and the Porterville Clan; Ravenswood High School Class of ’67; the cantankerous members of The Brothers Golf Club, and my co-conspirator and motivator, Kikanza.

    And especially, for putting up with me and all that comes with that, my wife, Ardise Renee.

    Thank you all.

    Lewis Bundy Oakland, CA
    Publisher’s Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    • Vera Blake
    • Educational Consultant
    • ASCD Faculty Member
    • Dumfries, VA
    • David G. Daniels
    • High School Principal
    • Susquehanna Valley Central Schools
    • Conklin, NY
    • Kathy Tritz-Rhodes
    • Principal
    • MMC Primary and MMC East Elementary
    • Cleghorn, IA
    • Bonnie Tyron, EdD
    • Mentor Coach & Retired Principal
    • Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School
    • Cobleskill, NY
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    Wise, Tim . ( 2012 ). Dear white America, letter to a new minority. San Francisco: City Lights.
    Wu, Ellen , & Martinez, Martine . ( 2006 ). Taking cultural competency from theory to action (Vol. 38). The Commonwealth Fund.
    Zinn, Howard . ( 2003 ). A people’s history of the United States. New York: HarperCollins.

    Assessment Tools and Internet Resources

    These tools will help both children and adults better understand themselves and their responses to their environments. Personality style assessments such as these are best used not to label Fish Out of Water further, but rather to help understand how and why they engage with others as they do. They are also helpful in learning the styles of engagement that are more or less dominant in U.S. society.

    Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

    The MBTI is a classic assessment used in many industries for career counseling, communication, and team building. Many Fish Out of Water are introverts and intuitives. The MBTI resources assist in identifying one’s social style, which then helps the person to understand why he or she experiences the world in a particular way. Additional resources help to identify what kind of adjustments can be made to better engage with styles that more commonly shape the organizational environment. Assessment tools and a plethora of support materials can be retrieved from

    DiSC Personality Profiles

    These assessments identify different personality types based on the temperaments that Myers and Briggs identified. DiSC profiles are inventories that present the results simply and provide supporting resources to take the understanding deeply. These inventories are easy to administer, fun to take, and enlightening to explore with a group. The inventories and supporting materials can be retrieved from

    Gregorc Energic Styles

    Anthony Gregorc presented the paradigm for understanding differences in perceptual qualities and ordering abilities. The four archetypes for these thinking styles are Concrete Sequential, Abstract Sequential, Abstract Random, and Concrete Random. This is another simple, yet profound, construct that explains why some people feel like Fish Out of Water. Abstract Random thinkers are harder to understand by the more dominant Concrete Sequential thinkers. An easy-to-understand description of the model can be retrieved at The Gregorc Style Delineator and supporting resources can be retrieved from

    Locus of Control Assessment

    These assessments determine whether a person feels they are in control of their life or that life just happens to them no matter what they do. There are many versions that are based on the research of Julian B. Rotte, published in 1954. A self-assessment and supporting review of related research can be retrieved from

    Videos and Teaching Guides

    These resources provide materials for teaching about, or for leaders seeking to facilitate, more equitable environments.

    Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. (2009). The danger of a single story [A TED Talk]. Retrieved from

    Butler, Shakti. (Director). (2013). Cracking the codes: The system of racial inequity. [Video produced by World Trust]. Retrieve film and resources from

    Garity, Dylan. (2015). Teaching children in this awful way is like helping a person who is on fire by drowning them. [Video]. Retrieved from

    Koyczan, Shane. (2013). To this day . . . for the bullied and the beautiful [A TED Talk] retrieved from

    NASBE. (2002). A more perfect union: Building an education system that embraces all children. (The Report of the NASBE Study Group on the Changing Face of America’s School Children). Retrieve from

    Smith, Llewellyn. (Producer & Director). (2015, September). American denial: The roots of racism [Film and discussion guide] Retrieved from

    Southern Poverty Law Center. (n.d.). Teaching tolerance. Extensive resources for educators. Montgomery, AL: Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved from

    Zinn, Howard. (2015). Teaching a people’s history of the United States. A Collaboration between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change. Retrieved from

    Fish Out of Water in Literature

    These, mostly fictional, resources are about Fish Out of Water and code sharing. They can be used for professional development book studies and used by students, priming the pump to help them tell their stories and learn from reading about other Fish Out of Water.

    Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. (2013). Americanah. New York: Anchor Press.

    Backman, Fredrik. (2015). My grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Dunbar, Paul Laurence. (1896). We wear the mask. Lyrics of Lowly Life (p. 167). New York: Dodd Mead & Co.

    Duron, Lori. (2013). Raising my rainbow. New York: Broadway Books.

    Eugenides, Jeffrey. (2003). Middlesex. New York: Picador Books.

    Gallagher Hateley, B.J., & Schmidt, Warren H. (2001). A peacock in the land of penguins. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

    Gino, Alex. (2015). George. New York: Scholastic Press.

    Gracian, Baltasar. (1647). The art of worldly wisdom. (Christopher Maurer, Trans., 1991). New York: Doubleday.

    Lansens, Lori. (2002). Rush home road. Boston: Little Brown.

    Robbins, Steve. (2008). What if? Short stories to spark diversity dialogue. Boston: Nicholas Brealy.

    Russell, Mary Doria. (1997). The sparrow. New York: Ballantine Books.

    Sykes, Lucy, & Piazza, Jo. (2015). The knock off. New York: Doubleday.

    Tzu, Sun. (1994). Art of war (Ralph Sawyer, Trans.). New York: Perseus Press.

    Book Study Guidelines

    These guidelines are designed for ninety-minute book study sessions. With gathering and leaving times and time for eating snacks, you may want to allot two hours. There is no ideal number, but a book study is an opportunity to build community and deepen relationships. If that is your goal, five to eight people is a good-sized group. With that number, there will be greater participation and a stronger motivation to keep up with the reading and any homework.

    Before You Begin
    • Establish norms for the group. Clarify the expectations for attendance, tardiness, note taking, leaving early, and food.
    • Plan the reading: How much will be assigned for each session? How often will you meet? We recommend meeting every one to three weeks and assigning a chapter at a time.
    • Establish the calendar.
    • Decide who will be responsible for facilitation. One person could volunteer, or the responsibility could be rotated.
    Prepare the Lesson
    Option One

    At the end of each chapter are a number of questions and prompts for Going Deeper with the ideas and concepts presented in the chapter.

    • In some of the chapters, questions are imbedded in text boxes within the narrative. You may choose to use these questions for your discussion.
    • The Reflect prompts are designed for the individual to ponder.
    • The Assess questions are an informal inventory. This inventory can be taken individually or as a group.
    • The Discuss items are designed for group discussion.
    Option Two

    Within each chapter are stories about Fish Out of Water. These stories can be used as cases for study. Stories can be assigned to individuals or to small groups. For each story discuss the answers to the following questions. Use Figures 3.1, 7.2, 8.1, 8.2, and 10.1 to support your responses.

    • What happened in the story?
    • As a storyteller, how might you flesh out the story? What happened first, what happened after? What else was going on?
    • As the Fish Out of Water in the story, what is the issue or concern? What do you need?
    • If you were asked to intervene as colleague, teacher, supervisor, or parent, what would be your respective responsibilities? What actions might you take?
    • What are the implications of this story for your life? For our work?
    Option Three

    At the end of this book is the story that inspired the title. The story of Jeanne and Gordy is a fable that teaches the many lessons of Fish Out of Water.

    • If you work with children, you can read the story with them and facilitate discussions that might reveal much about the environments of those children.
    • You can write your own children’s story.
    • You can add to the adventures of Jeanne and Gordy as you read through this book.
    Prepare the Space

    The room should have comfortable seating and be free from outside interruption. A circular arrangement is preferable so that everyone can see one another. Some groups prefer tables so they can more easily take notes.

    During the Study

    Use the following steps to guide the discussion during the book study session.

    Check In

    Quickly go around the circle and ask each person to take about thirty seconds to check in. If you do not meet often, as the group members become bonded, the check-in may take longer, because you will want to know more about what is going on in the lives of one another. At the same time, it is important to be disciplined about the check-in, so it does not take away from the discussion of the book.

    • Give your name unless you are absolutely, positively certain that everyone knows everyone—My name is Normal.
    • Share a thought or feeling about how you are in this moment—I’m a little tired today, and I’m excited about the chapter we read.
    • Share anything that might be a distraction for you—I’m anxious about my son, who is waiting for his acceptance letter.
    • Affirm that you are present and ready to work—and I’m checking in.
    Since Our Last Meeting

    Offer insights and questions that arose since the last meeting. Chart these comments if this is one of your norms.

    Today’s Reading

    Summarize the reading for the day in a sentence or two—this chapter was about helping children who are Fish Out of Water.

    • Ask the group members to identify personal insights, personal connections to the ideas, and implications for their life. Since this book is about Fish Out of Water and how to help them and work with them, insights may come from the perspective of the Fish Out of Water or from the adult who is helping a child or an adult helping another adult or all three.
    • After a free-flowing discussion, ask each person to share the following:

      • The idea most significant to me
      • A paragraph that resonates with me
    • Silence is a form of participation. Often, silence means the person is processing feelings or deep thoughts. Sometimes silence means that people have something to say, but they are not entirely comfortable sharing it in the group or they are composing what they will say. After allowing some moments for silence, if the group feels dysfunctionally silent, suggest they use the prompts:

      • I learned . . .
      • I noticed . . .
      • I remembered . . .

    Invite the other members of the group to respond

    • Ask and respond to the questions that are at the end of a specific chapter.

    Close the discussion by asking people to share the following:

    • What the reading means to me personally and professionally.
    • Implications for my praxis.
    • What might I do next? What might we do as a community?


    A Fish Out of Water

    Sequoia Elementary School is in a suburban neighborhood, adjacent to Oakland Pond. Throughout the seasons, which are relatively mild, children enjoy the breezes blowing across the pond and watch the occasional fish break the surface. The children would like to spend much more time at this pond, watching the life in it; however, the adults who are in charge at the school have determined that activities at the pond are not safe. As a distraction and alternative, the adults installed an aquarium in the school library. The aquarium recreates the ecosystem in the pond, which gives the children a chance to see fish close-up while keeping a safe distance from any dangers that the fish or the water in the pond might pose.

    Sequoia students love going to the library so they can watch the fish. The adults make sure that the ecosystem stays healthy so the fish can thrive. With proper filtration, nourishment, and shelters, an aquarium can accommodate a very diverse population of fish. In the Sequoia library, the younger students feed the fish and the older students study the fish, comparing them to life in the pond outdoors.

    Noah, a new student at Sequoia, doesn’t have many friends, but loves the school, the library, and especially the aquarium. He spends a lot of time at the pond when he’s not at school and a lot of time in the library when he’s not in class. One day he goes fishing at Oakland Pond to catch fish with a new net that he’d received for his birthday. He wanted to add a new fish to his aquarium—which really was only a goldfish bowl.

    As he dipped his net time after time without a catch, a school of young fry swam by. The fry were learning the rules of life in the pond: where the dangers are, where they can play and grow, how to avoid the hooks and worms that they sometimes came upon. They learned to swim in an orderly fashion to protect themselves. In this school among many other small fry, is Gordy, a fun seeking, show-off, nonconformist bass.

    As the school of fry swam in a shallow part of the pond near the edge, Gordy was doing his usual, show-off stunts, amazing the whole school with his speed while chasing a shining minnow. He noticed the others dashing away, faster than he was swimming. He turned, but it was too late, because just then Noah dipped his net into the pond, and this time, he scooped up Gordy.

    Noah placed Gordy in a can with a small slit for light and air and put the can on the back of his bike. There was plenty of water in the can, but it was very dark and Gordy was afraid. He was used to looking around and seeing things—like other fish, seaweed, rocks, and boat bottoms. But now all that he could see was a very thin strip of light at the top the can. And all he could think was, “I want to get out of here . . . ”

    Gordy was so scared he was barely breathing by the time Noah got home. Noah rushed to the kitchen and filled a glass jar with water. He put Gordy into the jar and sat it on the kitchen counter. Gordy could now breathe more comfortably and, just as importantly, he could see. But he didn’t see his friends or dragonflies or turtles . . . He saw a stove, refrigerator, pots, cabinets, and a face watching him. He was very scared.

    Noah saw Gordy swimming around in the jar and thought, “He must really be happy to be here.” But Gordy was thinking, “LET ME OUT OF HERE!”

    Happy to have a new fish, Noah put Gordy in the goldfish bowl in his room. The bowl was too small—it was designed for goldfish, not bass—and it was scary too. Noah fed Gordy flakes instead of the algae, minnows, and bugs he was used to. Noah watched Gordy swim quickly around the goldfish bowl opening and closing his mouth. “Oh boy, he said, “my new fish is really happy.” What Gordy was saying was, “LET ME OUT OF HERE!!”

    Even without his usual diet, Gordy grew quickly. The fishbowl was too small for a pond fish, and the goldfish in the bowl released oils that made Gordy sluggish and his colors dull. Noah finally noticed that his new fish was not doing well, so he took Gordy to the aquarium at school.

    The school aquarium is very large and has wide, open spaces that allow the fish to move quickly around it. There is space for nurturing and hiding the young and the small fish, and there is open space for the larger fish. At the bottom of the tank are rocks and plants that create hiding spaces. With less open space, there is less room for large, predatory fish. It is also a good place for fish to spawn, because the environment is so protective.

    A diverse species of fish called Cichlids live in the aquarium. Some Cichlids, like Oscars and Angel Fish, can grow to the size of a man’s hand. Because they are the biggest, they can swim anywhere they want, so they mostly use the open spaces. There are large antisocial, aggressive Cichlids with names like Convict, Firemouth, and Green Terror; they swim anywhere they want. There are also peaceful types like Mollies, Guppies, and Dwarfs. Some fish, like the Plecostomus and Catfish, just look scary. They are bottom-feeding fish that provide the important community service of keeping the tank clean.

    Gordy swam around the tank, looking at the rocks and plants. He swam through the castle looking for friends. He didn’t see any. When he looked outside the tank, instead of seeing frogs and minnows, he saw books and people watching him.

    When Noah saw the fish swimming around the tank with all the other fish, he said to his classmates, “My pet fish sure likes his new home.”

    But Gordy was really thinking, “LET ME OUT OF HERE!!!” Although Gordy, a Big-Mouthed Bass, was similar to many of the Cichlids in the tank fish, his ways and growth rate were different, and he made the other fish very uneasy. He didn’t fit in, but he didn’t understand why, because these were fish, just like him.

    One day, Gordy met Jeanne, who had grown up in the aquarium and thrived there. Jeanne, an Angelfish, is peaceful and territorial. She is shaped like a small Frisbee, with beautiful chiffon-like fins that make it easy for her to move through plants and around rocks. Jeanne liked to swim near the edges of the tank, where things couldn’t sneak up behind her. She knew of places in the shallows, protected by plants and rocks, where she could eat and watch the other fish. She always moved cautiously and prepared for the unexpected.

    “I should have been more careful,” Gordy said to no one in particular.

    “Yes, you should be,” said a voice, as he felt himself pushed aside into some shadowed greens.

    “Who are you?” Gordy stammered.

    “The question is whose dinner do you plan to be?” Jeanne replied. “The first thing you have to learn here is which fish are considered to be bait, which are considered to be food, and which ones might be your friends.” Gordy wasn’t sure that he understood, but she seemed sure.

    So Gordy considered Jeanne to be a friend. She showed him around the tank and warned Gordy of other impending dangers.

    They always had to watch out for the net, which sometimes held tasty morsels and often took fish away. And they also had to be alert for predator fish, like Red Devil and Midas who loved eating the young fish, and Jack Dempsey, who liked to scare the smaller fish. Jeanne told Gordy to stay away from the Clownfish; they were particularly dangerous.

    Gordy thought he understood. His mother had told him, “If you aren’t the meanest or the biggest, you better be very smart.” But there was so much to learn in this new environment.

    Jeanne showed Gordy the safe shallows and weedy areas where he could eat and grow. Gordy also discovered there were lots of interesting fish on the edges of the tank. He found some mentors, who helped the fish to find their way. He found a Patient Paradigm Shifter, who was particularly good at finding just the right time to introduce new ideas. He met a Truth Teller who didn’t talk very much. Gordy noticed that when the Truth Teller did talk, everyone paid attention.

    There were also some exotic fish. Gordy became friends with a Blowfish, who had learned to modulate herself so she wasn’t scary all the time. There were also quite a few scuzzy-gilled fish. Scuzzy gills come from not moving around enough and allowing bad things to build up in one’s gills, making it hard to breathe. Some fish were forced into or just settled in spots where their gills became scuzzy, because they didn’t move enough to clear them.

    When Jeanne was a small fry, she had learned from Rainbow Fish that if she puffed out her gills she’d look bigger. “Don’t do that,” her mother said. “Nice fish don’t puff out their gills. It scares other fish, and it is not polite. When you are at home, suck those gills in.” Now that Jeanne had been living on her own for a while, she had a different opinion about puffy gills. The Truth Teller had told her, “There was nothing good or bad about puffing one’s gills. What was most important was to be appropriate.”

    Gordy understood more and more as Jeanne taught him how to survive in this new environment. Jeanne told Gordy, “You see those Firemouth over there? They would just as soon eat you as be your friend. So when they swim by, huff and puff and get as big as you can. Those are some fish that you want to scare.” Gordy understood that.

    Jeanne showed Gordy how to hide in the small castle at the bottom of the tank, where he met Ol Plecosty. One day while exploring this new strange place, Gordy saw a shiny worm, no hook to be seen, just floating in the water. He couldn’t resist the urge and took off to get a morning meal, when he heard a deep, loud roar. . . .

    “I’ve been watching you,” Ol Plecosty said. “You like to take a lot of risks, don’t you? That is not food; that is bait. If you had taken the bait, you would not have had a snack, you would have been the meal or scooped up by the net. If you are going to live to be as old as me, you have to be able to tell the food from the bait. Here,” said Ol Plecosty, after he introduced himself, “you will be considered bait by some of the other fish if you don’t watch out.”

    “What should I watch for?”

    “Well here, you are among the smaller fish, and those guys,” Plecosty said, pointing to a small school of Firemouths, “eat your kind for lunch. And you must always watch out for the net. It seems to come out of nowhere.”

    “Oh, I think I learned that lesson,” said Gordy, “that’s how I got here. I got caught in the net.”

    “Mr. Plecosty,” Jeanne asked, “how did you get to be so old?”

    “Oh, it has taken some doing,” said the old bottom feeder. “I used to be young and curious like you. Now I am old and wary.”

    “And wise,” said Jeanne. “But how? There are not a lot of old fish in these tanks.”

    “Well, I did what you are doing Jeanne. I moved from place to place, learning as much as I could, teaching when I was given a chance, and getting the hell out when it was dangerous. I learned what it took for me to feel safe and comfortable, and that is where I live and where I’ll stay until I stop living.”

    Ol Plecosty has learned to thrive at the bottom of the tank. He manages the waste, keeps the environment clear of foul matter. He can camouflage himself among the rocks for protection. His body can survive the trauma of turmoil in the tank or not enough food much better than other fish. He is resilient. He is among the oldest fish in the tank, and while he can be quite aggressive, he seldom finds it necessary.

    At another time, as Jeanne and Gordy swam along learning more about the tank, they didn’t realize that they had wandered into the open water where they were attacked by a group of Groupers. After being chased by the group of Groupers into a small crevice, Jeanne knew she was in trouble. The Groupers were the biggest fish in the tank and VERY scary. The place where they hid helped them escape from the group of Groupers but was much too small to stay for long. One thing that Gordy knew from growing up in the pond was that sometimes you just have to face up to the enemy and fight. He called up all courage that he could and in his biggest bubble breath, yelled, “LET US OUT OF HERE!!!!” as he swam toward the group as fast as he could.

    The Groupers were so shocked and surprised that they scattered in all directions, allowing Jeanne and Gordy to escape.

    While continuing to learn to live in the tank, Gordy was never happy . . . Swimming became harder and harder, his color started to change . . . He felt scuzz growing in his gills. He needed to get out of there . . .

    One day, as he watched Jeanne maneuver around the tank with ease, he didn’t notice the net floating in the tank . . . and before he could say, “Let me . . .“ Gordy was snatched up.

    The boy again! Noah had watched the little fish, and seeing Gordy’s growing discomfort, caught him again with the net.

    Noah placed Gordy in a plastic bag with very little water . . . This was The. Scariest. Place. Ever. All he could think of was “Let me out of here!!”

    After awhile, the bag opened and Gordy saw bubbles in the water from the fresh air.

    And then, plop, Noah dropped Gordy into his pond just as his old schoolmates were swimming by. Gordy was very surprised and very happy. He had learned so much about living in other waters. He could now be like ol Mr Plecosty and help young fry try to grow in the waters in which they swam.

    Noah had also learned a lot from watching Gordy and was happy that the little fish that didn’t fit in was now back in the pond. Gordy and Noah both have lots of stories to tell.

    Not every fish fits in every pond . . . but there is a pond for every fish.

    About the Authors

    Kikanza and Lewis are available for consultation, keynote presentations, and professional development in your organization.

        Kikanza Nuri-Robins, EdD, MDiv


    Kikanza Nuri-Robins helps people to close the gap between what they say they are and what they actually do. Whether she is in a corporate boardroom, the fireside room of a retreat center, or a convention center auditorium, Kikanza uses her skills and insights to help people and organizations that are in transition—or ought to be. She shares her observations and recommendations with clarity and candor, while gently encouraging them to face the difficult situations that challenge their skill sets and their values. She leads people to this growing edge with unswerving focus, an understanding heart, and laughter that rises from the seat of her soul. Since 1978, Kikanza has worked as an organizational development consultant in a variety of settings, including education, health care, criminal justice, and religion, focusing on leadership development, change management, and cultural proficiency. Her clients range from school districts, to university faculty, to government offices and nonprofit organizations. The connecting thread is her passion for working with people who want to make a difference for others. Kikanza studied at Occidental College, the University of Southern California, and the San Francisco Theological Seminary. She is the author of many articles and five books, including: Cultural Proficiency and Culturally Proficient Responses to the LGBT Communities. Kikanza lives in Los Angeles where she spends her discretionary time as a textile artist.     Lewis Bundy, MA    510.289.8928

    Lewis Bundy has spent his career working for social justice. He has been a teacher, an administrator, a community organizer, and a desegregation consultant. As an organization development consultant, he has provided training and technical assistance to a number of educational and nonprofit agencies. Beginning his career as a middle school teacher in East Palo Alto, his focus has been on helping teens and young adults develop the skills to become highly functioning citizens and helping the adults who work with them to respond appropriately to their needs. Lewis retired from higher education, having served as Director of Student Services at Argosy University in Alameda, California, and Assistant Vice President for Student Services at Alliant International University, following a long successful tenure as Director of Academic Services at San Jose State University. His experiences also include: Director of Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and oversight of TRIO programs, Program Manager for the School Desegregation Assistance Center at Far West Regional Laboratory, Mental Health Association administration, and board member for various community organizations. Lewis received a BA from Occidental College, MA in Educational Administration from San Francisco State University, and pursued additional graduate studies at UCLA. He and his wife live in Oakland, California, where he is the father of four amazing women and four extraordinary grandchildren. He spends most of his discretionary time with his family or in his shed and plays golf whenever and wherever he can.

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